Daily Archives: May 11, 2002

What is “violent?” What isn’t “violent?” Who decides?

I posted this rant on joystick101.org as well as, in a slightly different form, at kuro5hin.org. But here is it again. My thoughts on a recent bill to outlaw the sale of “violent” videogames to minors.

On May 2, Congressman Joe Baca (D-California) introduced H.R. 4645, The Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2002. The bill would penalize those who sell or rent “violent” video games to a minor. Some of their reasons for proposing this are: the video games aren’t free speech ruling, the Germany shooting (even though that man was 19 and thus not a minor as well as the fact that there is already a similar law in Germany) and a report that “found” that “violent” videogames cause violence (despite the fact that there other reports that found no link).

The language Baca used in the press release is pure moral panic. “I’m a parent and grandparent, and I’ve had enough of the violence we’re experiencing among our youth,” Baca said. “We saw it at Columbine High School, and we saw it last week in Germany.” “Do you really want your kids assuming the role of a mass murderer or car jacker while you are away at work?” And referencing the St. Louis decision he says, “The courts have finally decided what every parent already knows – that video games containing ultra violent depictions of murder, rape, and assault have no place in the hands of our children.”

The ignorance evident in the St. Louis decision as been discussed elsewhere. However, the ignorance of this proposed law bears discussion. Whether or not children should be allowed access to these games is not the issue I wish to discuss. The issues are whether or not the government should be the one to decide this debate and what is considered “violent” and why.

To the best of my knowledge (and I would be thrilled if anyone can prove me wrong) there is no federal law enforcing movie ratings. The movie ratings board is a self-imposed regulatory body. It is the movie theaters and video renters/sellers who decide who can see a “violent” film and who cannot, not the federal government. If this is true, the videogame industry already has ratings. The industry simply needs to enforce them. Why should the film industry be allowed to self-regulate and the videogame industry should not?

By outlawing the sales of “violent” videogames to minors, the government will nullify these ratings. What is “violent” and who gets to decide? Is Madden 2002 violent? How do we know if they consider that violent or not? According to the proposed law it might be considered violent under the “aggravated assault or battery” limitation. This law opens up the floodgates and makes it very hard for a game development company to make sure that they do not make a game that is considered “too violent.” With the industry regulated ratings board there is prior knowledge. The makers and retailers find out that the game is “violent” before it goes to the store, and therefore know what they are getting themselves into. With a law, the makers, and perhaps more importantly, the retailers will not know if a game is “too violent” until they get busted by some undercover police officer with nothing better to do.

This issue of violence gets to a deeper issue. In all likelihood, Madden 2002 would not be considered “too violent.” Why? Because it is “just football.” In American society (and probably in much of western society as well, although I am no expert on international culture), sports are naturalized. We consider them harmless. Even more than that, we encourage children to participate in them saying that they will be morale builders and the like. However, let us stop a moment and think about what actually happens during a contact, “masculine” sport like football (both kinds), basketball or hockey. How do players hype themselves up for the game, how to they refer to their opponents? “Let’s kill ’em! Let’s rip their heads off! Let’s destroy them!”

So here we have an activity that involves actual real violence, hitting one another and face to face trash talking and yet we do not seem concerned that this will lead to other acts of violence? But we have these mediated, virtual enactments and we are concerned? Real violence does not cause more violence, but virtual violence does? The worst injury I have ever heard of at a LAN party is carpal tunnel! How often do fights break out at LAN parties? How often do they break out at sporting events? Remind me again which one of these causes violence?

This is not to suggest that I think we should outlaw sports. Not at all. It is to show a point. Sports are considered part of our society. They have been since ancient times. So the thought that these may cause violence does not even occur to most people. However, these damn kids and their videogames. Now that is another story. Videogames are a new medium and they are a new entrant into our culture. Hence the moral panic surrounding them. Remember what rap was supposed to do to our kids? Remember what heavy metal was supposed to do? Remember rock and roll? There have been moral panics about technology dating all the way back to the popularization of the printing press. What is going on here is nothing different and as such we should try to see through the moralistic, “what about the children!?!” hype and see that the real issues here are not “should children be prevented from buying violent videogames?” but “Do we need a law to prevent children from buy violent videogames?” “Who decides what ‘violent’ is?” and “Why is that considered violent when there are so many other things in society that aren’t?”